After enjoying huge success with the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, French dance duo Daft Punk realised that the approach to their next album was too much of a synthesiser overload. They set about making Random Access Memories, a celebration of the 1970s/80s US disco sound, and something of a rarity: a dance record with 'proper' instruments, singers and musicians, limiting the use of drum machines and performing live in a studio. That said, vocoders feature heavily - Bangalter and de Homem-Christo sharing vocal duties - with mixed results and form a huge part of the album.
Random Access Memories features some notable guests and Nile Rodgers (Chic) provides guitars for several songs including opener Give Life Back To Music, a huge slice of smooth funk. But the big early highlight is the nine-minute genius that is Giorgio by Moroder, starting as spoken word, with Giorgio explaining his part in the early days of electronic music. He introduces himself and the cool vibrant electronica starts, moving from funky to classical, back to full-on beats and bass, driving drums and keyboards with a huge swathe of instrumentation, stuttering into a swirling mass of guitars. This is a wonderful tribute. Of the other collaborations, Pharrell Williams brings most to the party - his voice free of robotic production. Lose Yourself To Dance starts well but lapses into the predictable, while the excellent Get Lucky is perfect dance/pop again with Nile Rodgers adding his sparkling guitar work.
Elsewhere, Random Access Memories is a mix of brilliance and frustration. Touch is inspired (after an odd start), with Paul Williams adding a great vocal turn, some bouncy jazz/skiffle fusion before a choral/electronic arrangement. Williams provides the lyrics for Beyond, the smooth soundtrack opening and excellent outro are marred by clumsy vocals and a poor delivery. This and Instant Crush would work better as an instrumental, in spite of Julian Casablancas delivering a decent, if mashed up, vocal for the latter. Late on, Motherboard is a neat track and it's not every day you hear a cristal baschet in full flow, and the soulful Fragments Of Time (with Todd Edwards) is smart and uncluttered. Closing track Contact is a great idea, blending samples, the magnificent sound of a modular synthesiser (with DJ Falcon) and pounding drums into something old-school; it builds then builds again before ending in slightly underwhelming chaos.
Random Access Memories feels more like an experiment than a well-crafted album but when they are brilliant, Daft Punk are truly inspired and enchanting. They have revitalised a vintage sound and with the help of Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams (among others), created something quite wonderful. But this is nowhere near perfect and the early emotional ballads (The Game Of Love and Within) are slow and lifeless - it's hard to convey power and generate empathy when fronted by Marvin, the Paranoid Android. You can't fault the approach however - more often than not Random Access Memories sounds real and relevant. An audacious celebration.